The PDX Jazz Festival, in its 19th year, brought the Rose City 10 days and nights of live music from Feb. 17 through Feb. 26. This time, real performances and real audiences replaced the last two years’ virtual ones. Portland jazz fans were ready to break out of Covid anxiety, mask up and attend. They proved it by helping to sell out 10 shows as diverse as Makaya McCraven, Mndsgn, Robert Glasper, Julana Torres, Brandee Younger and Dezron Douglas and the Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group.
“We were just really grateful to have had a festival at all given the extremely difficult conditions we had to produce it in,” PDX Jazz Festival Artistic Director Nicholas Harris said. “Portland really responded and it was clear the city needed a positive collective experience and the live music salve did the trick,” noting that the highlights included the Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah show featuring Weedie Braimah at the Aladdin, Brandee Younger and Dezron Douglas at The Old Church, and Gary Bartz, who did two shows in one night.
Shortly before the festival, things didn’t look so promising when headliner jazz giant bassist Ron Carter and his Golden Striker Trio postponed until June, and pianist Brad Mehldau caught Covid in the Netherlands and canceled his opening-night show.
Ultimately, concerts were juggled and overall “attendance was strong,” PDX Jazz Executive Director Chris Doss said. “There was a celebratory atmosphere and appreciation to have the festival back as live events.”
Free community shows featuring local musicians at such places as the Portland Art Museum, Art Bar & Bistro, Artichoke Music, The Nines, and the Alberta Abbey (which Portland’s Blue Cranes filled to the brim), plus free lectures and interviews, all made it possible for anyone to tune into live jazz and jazz artists, even if he or she didn’t want to buy a ticket.
Then again, many festival seats went empty, especially at the higher-priced ticket venues like the Winningstad and Star theaters. Some shows appealing to younger fans attracted larger audiences, Doss said. Count among them guitarist Marc Ribot, progressive-jazz drummer Nate Smith +KINFOLK and Black Radio multi-Grammy winner Robert Glasper.
What a good sign that is. Jazz is forever changing and evolving — and far from dying a slow death. Here are a few of my own festival highlights.